This is the first of what may turn into a semi-occasional piece here at OnlySP where we detail a particular studio, their origin, history, and contribution to gaming as a whole over the years.
We’re beginning with the Breakout from Bellvue, the Warriors of Washington, the…yeah it’s Valve.
Founded in 1996 by former Microsoft employees Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell, Valve are, of course, famous for Half-Life, which took the gaming world by storm when it was released last century (1998!), but the story of Valve is much more nuanced than a simple studio still riding the waves of a one-hit wonder.
All stories have a beginning though, and Valve’s does indeed start with Half-Life. A story-driven FPS unlike anything that had come before it, it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that Half-Life turned the industry on its head. Incorporating puzzles, action combat, aliens, murky quasi-governmental agents, together with what would become one of the most famous protagonists in gaming, Half-Life became an overnight success on the PC, winning over fifty “Game of the Year” awards from notable sources such as PC Gamer (both US and UK editions), CNET, and even the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. For all the success though, the game almost didn’t happen. Valve had difficulty obtaining funding to create it, since as a new startup their funds were limited. After being told multiple times that their concept was “too ambitious”, eventually Sierra On-Line, who had been looking to fund a 3D action game of their own, signed on as publisher. Two years later the game was released, and history tells you the rest.
Expansion packs for Half-Life soon followed, Opposing Force in 1999 (although it was mostly developed by Gearbox) and Blue Shift in 2001 (again, mostly Gearbox’s work), both being well received in general.
Valve began to get a reputation in the industry for making their games very mod-friendly, and then hiring those modders who had put out impressive work to build full games with Valve’s resources. This began with Team Fortress Classic, released by Valve in 1999, but which started life as a 1996 mod for Quake. After seeing the substantial mod support Valve had put into Half-Life, the mod’s developers (notably John Cook and Robin Walker) decided to convert it from Quake to Half-Life. Upon hearing of this, Valve instead offered them the chance to move to the US and work for Valve (they were both based in Australia at the time). They agreed, and wound up creating Team Fortress Classic, essentially a total conversion of Quake‘s Team Fortress mod, for Half-Life. TFC itself became one of the most popular mods of all time, and in 2007 Valve released its sequel, Team Fortress 2, which has gone on to receive industry and gamer acclaim.
Following the experiment with Team Fortress, Valve performed the same trick with Counter-Strike, which was itself an original mod made specifically for Half-Life. Counter-Strike the mod was released in beta form in 1999, and Valve acquired the rights and hired the developers (Jess Cliffe and Minh Lee), with the retail version of Counter-Strike being released the following year, again to great acclaim – as was becoming customary. Rinse and repeat for Day of Defeat, which was originally released as a mod in 2000 before Valve hired many of the mod team, who then went on to create the retail game released in 2003. In PC gaming circles it became a running joke that everyone should start to learn how to mod so you could get snapped up by Valve and whisked away to America.
Still dizzy from these heights of success, Valve in the early 2000s began to ready what would become a triple knockout blow that would quite literally change the face of gaming, as they had already done once with Half-Life.
The first of these was Steam.
Steam was Valve’s answer to what at the time was quite an annoying problem for PC gamers, namely having to continually update your games with the newest patches and fixes. At that time high speed cable and DSL Internet connections were the stuff of fantasy, and if you had a 5Mb line you were considered some kind of god amongst men, dispensing your Internet magic to those around you like the smell of freshly-baked bread from an oven. For games such as Half-Life, which had spawned literally dozens of mods by that point, it became unwieldy to continually have to update your games, move folders around, and even sometimes create multiple installations of the same game to get a certain mod to work correctly. PC gamers had to go to the publisher’s sites to find official patches, and god forbid your dial-up dropped out in the middle of a 900MB download because then you’d probably be starting all over again. There needed to be a better solution, and Valve’s better solution was Steam.
Steam was originally envisioned as Valve’s content delivery system, which would streamline the process of getting purchased (or modded) content to gamers, together with better piracy-prevention and cheat-detection built-in. It also had the bonus side-effect of reducing overhead costs for the publisher since no physical media would need to ship anymore, someone would just purchase a game through Steam and download it. It was a tough sell. At the time, matchmaking for Valve games (Counter-Strike, TFC, etc.) was handled by WON, the World Opponent Network. Valve knew they needed to give Steam a gentle push if it were to have any hope of becoming mainstream, and to that end Steam was made mandatory for the beta of Counter-Strike 1.6. Since this was (and remains) one of Valve’s most popular games, attaching it to Steam was a smart move, and whilst initially there were teething troubles from so many people trying to connect at once through a nascent online service, over time Steam began to gain more acceptance by gamers. In 2004, Valve closed WON (they had purchased it outright three years earlier) and migrated all multiplayer matchmaking and functionality into Steam, making it mandatory for anyone who wished to play any Valve game online.
The second and third of Valve’s super-secret plans went hand-in-hand: Half-Life 2 was coming, and it was going to be running on Valve’s brand new Source engine.
As Steam was Valve’s solution to a delivery problem, Source was their solution to a game problem. Up to this point, Valve games had been using a heavily-modified version of the Quake engine, known informally as Goldsource, or sometimes GoldSrc; Half-Life, TFC, Counter-Strike, et al. had all used this engine. Valve instead wanted to author their own engine that would have a more modular-based approach and allow them to make incremental changes to it over time, rather than larger engine revisions every few years, as had become customary in the industry. Source incorporated subsystems such as Havok physics, high dynamic range rendering, and improved netcode (to minimise lag in multiplayer gaming) to deliver a next-gen PC gaming experience. The fact that the first game it was going to be running on would be Half-Life 2, the sequel to what had become one of the best-selling games of all time, was just the icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that Valve’s private internal network was breached by a German computer hacker, with the source code for the game being downloaded and disseminated on dark parts of the Internet. This led to the game being delayed from 2003 to 2004, with the hacker eventually located by authorities and given two years of probation by a German court.
Valve announced that Steam would be required to install and activate Half-Life 2, and it was here Valve made one of their more infamous missteps. In short, Steam could not handle the amount of people trying to activate their copies, and many people were left in the unfortunate position of having the game in their hands but being unable to play it, due to Steam not authenticating their key. Valve were, of course, apologetic, and had resolved most of the problems within just a few days, but this sub-par launch tainted Steam’s reputation for years afterward, with a few hardcore dissenters continuing their rejection of anything Valve even to this day.
Once the authentication issues were licked, attention rightly turned to the game itself. Half-Life 2 was received every bit as enthusiastically as the original, with many commentators stating the new engine’s physics and rendering effects, coupled with a story every bit as good as the first, elevated the sequel above even the original. The game received extremely positive reviews across the industry, including 98% from PC Gamer, which remains the joint-highest score the magazine has ever awarded to a game (alongside Alpha Centauri and Crysis), multiple “Game of the Year” awards from places such as Edge, IGN and Eurogamer, and in 2012 Half-Life 2 was named “Game of the Decade” by Spike TV’s Video Game Awards.
Half-Life 2‘s success, coupled with Steam’s increasing acceptance among PC gamers, encouraged more developers to sign up with Steam. 2005 saw the first third-party games beginning to appear on the service, and although in the beginning it was more indie-style games making the jump, larger publishers were watching. id and Eidos made the decision to start publishing their games on Steam in 2007, and industry goliath Electronic Arts later followed, although have since removed their newest titles in favour of their own gaming service, Origin. Today, with very few exceptions, almost every major release is available on Steam on day one, and in some cases can be preloaded ahead of time for faster availability when the release date hits.
Half-Life 2 also represented Valve’s first big push into console gaming, since to this point they had remained mostly a PC-centric developer (technically the original Half-Life was the first Valve game to be released on a console, since it became available on the PlayStation 2 in 2001). Half-Life 2 was released on the original Xbox a year after its PC release, but Valve had further plans in store, both for consoles and the Half-Life universe.
In 2006, Valve made the surprise announcement that shorter, more episodic-style games would be released, set directly after the final events of Half-Life 2. Envisioned as a trilogy, Half-Life 2: Episode One would be coming later that year, and indeed the game was released in June, to the usual adoration that Valve probably got tired of reading by this point. With Episode One ending on a large cliffhanger, attention turned to when Valve were going to release the second episode, since theoretically development time should be shorter on these smaller games. It was at this point that Valve made one of their masterstrokes they have become famous for over the years: Half-Life 2: Episode Two was going to be released the following year as a standalone game, but would also be available in a compilation known as The Orange Box, that would also contain Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Team Fortress 2 (the long-awaited sequel to Team Fortress Classic) and Portal, a smaller puzzle-style game expected to be a fun little addon to what were expected to be the compilation’s bigger-hitting games. It was also announced that The Orange Box would be available on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the same day as the PC release, which was a first for a Valve game.